Three Florida men seen laughing in a video as they dragged a shark behind their boat were recently charged with a third-degree felony for aggravated cruelty to animals.
When the video of their heinous act first surfaced online, people were rightly outraged and demanded action. Authorities took notice too. In announcing the criminal charges, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission stated, “these actions have no place in Florida.”
Anyone familiar with the history and application of animal cruelty law in the U.S. would see this result, with its implication that we have a duty to avoid such cruelty even when it concerns a fish, as a genuine triumph. In the midst of prevailing sentiment that such cruelty has no place in our world, however, there is an irony.
A whopping 2.7 trillion fish are ripped from our oceans each year—that’s more than 30 times the number of all the chickens, pigs, cows, and other livestock raised for food globally each year combined. By and large, these fish are treated the same way this shark in Florida was: dragged for great distances through the water behind boats.
Why aren’t we just as outraged—if not more—by these similarly inhumane practices?
Because we don’t see them.
In “longline fishing”—the common method for catching tuna and swordfish—a line many miles long and containing thousands of hooks is dragged behind a ship; those hooks capture and jerk fish along through the water for great distances. And in net fishing, another mass fishing method, commercial fishers may drag hundreds of thousands of fish for many miles.
We take so many fish out of the ocean in these ways that one study in the journal Science predicts by 2048, all the world’s fisheries will have collapsed.
These fish may be dissimilar from pets and other animals we’ve come to personally know, but they’re smart, social beings in their own right. In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of supposedly “higher” vertebrates, including nonhuman primates. Fish use tools. They nurture their young. They communicate with each other. And they too, deserve to be treated humanely.
In addition to the fish targeted, nearly a million aquatic mammals are unintentionally killed each year in the global seafood trade, including New Zealand sea lions, several different whale species, porpoises, and dolphins, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council study. And that’s not to mention other aquatic animals like sea turtles and, yes, sharks.
Under pressure against these practices, the seafood industry has begun to shift toward aquaculture: fish factory farms. But they aren’t any better.
In 2013, 155 billion pounds of fish were factory farmed; that’s the equivalent of almost 350,000 Statues of Liberty. Picture massive tanks full of animals packed tightly next to one another, barely able to move and producing huge amounts of waste. That’s aquaculture—the fastest growing form of animal farming on the planet.
These fish factories often use more fish than they produce—by feeding fish to the fish they’re farming. They contribute to the problems associated with catching fish in the wild, since wild-caught fish may be used as feed in aquaculture.
The solution to these problems is quite simple, and it lies with each one of us. We can do our part by incorporating more plant-based foods into our diets. Millions of people worldwide are now doing exactly that—trying tofu salad sandwiches instead of tuna salad sandwiches and seitan instead of salmon. These foods tend to be gentler on the planet and its inhabitants, and swapping them in even once a day or a few times a week can have an impact.
Those who are rightfully upset by a case in which three fools on a boat cruelly drag a shark through the water ought to be outraged many times over—2.7 trillion times over, to be exact—at the thought of what occurs in the commercial fishing industry. Fortunately, for those who want to help change the world, the power is on our plates.
Matthew Prescott is the author of Food Is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World, which will be published in March 2018.